Even if you lead an active lifestyle, fill your fridge with fresh fruits and vegetables, and get a solid eight hours of sleep each night, you still might be unexpectedly gaining weight. Why, you ask? According to Carly Brawner, holistic nutritionist, health coach, and founder of Frolic and Flow, a hormone imbalance might be to blame.
"Many people hear the word 'hormone' and think sex, puberty, and periods, but we have sleep hormones, stress hormones, and even temperature-regulating hormones," explains Brawner. Hormones are responsible for sending messages throughout our bodies, and as it turns out, they can have quite a bit to do with fluctuations in weight.
"Hormones are tied to weight gain because they are crucial to metabolism, the nervous system, and reproduction—three bodily systems that are important for maintaining healthy body weight," Brawner tells MyDomaine. In addition to weight gain, there are several other symptoms to look out for if you think you may have a hormone imbalance, including "fatigue, sugar cravings, sleep issues, and mood changes," says Brawner.
To learn more about this common health problem, we asked a holistic nutritionist to explain three frequent causes of hormonal weight gain and how to treat each of them.
"Stress causes weight gain, and not just because of stress eating and drinking," explains Brawner. "Chronic stress means that the stress hormone, cortisol, is chronically present at high levels."
While there are a lot of sources of stress in our daily lives, it's necessary to find some work/life balance in order to keep your hormones (and weight) in check, according to Brawner.
"When we are in a stressful situation, we need cortisol to help us think clearly, move quickly, and survive," says Brawner. "However, cortisol also shuts down digestion and slows down metabolism."
Here are a few things that can help lower cortisol levels, as told to MyDomaine by Brawner:
Decreasing caffeine consumption can be a game changer for those with high cortisol.
Adopting a calming practice to take yourself out of fight-or-flight mode, like meditating, journaling, exercising, taking baths, reading at night, getting massage therapy, taking a vacation, or practicing breathing exercises. Spending time outdoors can also be powerful for promoting relaxation.
Using adaptogenic herbs, such as ashwagandha or reishi, to help naturally stabilize and regulate your cortisol levels. You can put them in a tonic or tea before bed.
A High-Sugar Diet
Insulin is released anytime you consume foods containing sugar or carbohydrates, and according to Brawner, eating a high-sugar diet can quickly lead to hormonal weight gain. "When the body is inundated with sugar and insulin and is taxed with long-term spiking and crashing, proper self-regulation becomes impossible and leads to insulin resistance," explains Brawner.
Here are a few things that can help prevent insulin resistance, as told to MyDomaine by Brawner:
Eating balanced meals that contain protein, healthy fat, and vegetable-based carbohydrates and fiber. Eating a breakfast full of protein and healthy fat is a great way to promote a healthy blood sugar level throughout the day. Don't be afraid of fat. Healthy fats provide a sustainable form of energy instead of the roller coaster that energy that sugar provides, and it also helps you stay fuller longer.
Minimizing sugar consumption. Sugar is hidden in dressings, soups, sauces, condiments, bars, and broths—and it's up to you to check ingredients and keep your sugar consumption under control.
Exercising regularly. Physical activity prevents insulin resistance because your body burns glycogen (a form of glucose) stored in muscles, and then it replenishes the muscles with glucose from the bloodstream during physical activity. Decreasing the amount of sugar in your diet and exercising consistently are two of the most helpful ways to increase insulin sensitivity.
Eating Nonorganic Animal Products
"Exposure to conventional meat, plastic, pesticides, and xenoestrogens (in cosmetics, etc.) are all common causes of [increased] estrogen in women (and men)," says Brawner. This imbalance can lead to a range of health problems, including hormonal weight gain.
"When there is an imbalance and either too much estrogen (and progesterone is at a normal level) or progesterone levels are low (and estrogen is normal or high), this is called estrogen dominance," explains Brawner. "Estrogen dominance doesn't just cause PMS and fertility problems, it [also] causes weight gain."
Here are a few things that can help regulate estrogen levels, as told to MyDomaine by Brawner:
Eating organic animal products. Conventional animal products are fed estrogen to increase their body size, and then humans consume that estrogen through milk, cheese, yogurt, and meat.
Avoiding Xenoestrogens as much as you can. Xenoestrogens are foreign estrogens, and they are found in many cosmetic products, cleaning products, plastic, makeup brands, and sunscreens. I recommend people utilize the EWG consumer guides to make sure what they're putting on their skin is safe for hormones and health.
Eating cruciferous veggies daily (cooked, the majority of the time). Cruciferous veggies include a compound called DIM that help promote healthy estrogen metabolism. I highly recommend getting DIM from food, but supplementing is also an option.
To summarize, eating well, exercising consistently, maintaining a healthy body weight, and managing stress are all beneficial to hormone balance and normal levels of estrogen.
"For any severe hormone imbalance, I recommend working with a holistic practitioner who will get to the root cause of the hormone problem," recommends Brawner. "Many imbalances can be improved with lifestyle modifications, but some need more intense protocols, dietary changes or supplements, and support from a practitioner."
This story was originally published on October 4, 2017, and has since been updated.